"Knock, Knock" is the kind of episode that made me regret what I asked for last week. Bruce Wayne's subplot was relatively prominent tonight, and boy, is that not good. While David Mazouz's performance is as good as I had hoped it would be, the problem with Wayne's redoubled quest to discover his "true calling" is that it requires us to spend a lot of time with Sean Pertwee's Alfred. And if "Knock, Knock" is any indication, Alfred has been ineffectively neutered. Tonight Alfred acted fussy and generally nervous, a change in attitude that was signaled by his frequent use of ridiculously inauthentic British colloquialisms, like "I'll tuck you up like a kipper" and "my old sausage." He's a comedic figure tonight, like when he scoffs at Bruce's claim that he'll "train every day" and asks Lucius Fox (Chris Chalk) if he knows anything about how to fix computers.
That change in Alfred's demeanor would have never happened in season one, but it's not a major problem unto itself. What's more troubling is the fact that Alfred seems different this season: kinder, gentler, less gruff. He even gets a maudlin little good-bye moment after Bruce prematurely dismisses him, though that moment was ruined by viewers' knowledge that Alfred serves Batman, not just young Bruce Wayne. Gotham's creators seem to be trying out new ways to fix last season's problems, but the changes in "Knock, Knock" are cosmetic. Throwing more villains at viewers isn't going to improve poor-quality dialogue, characterizations, and scenario. Poor Commissioner Essen is wrong when she says (twice!) that "it's a new day" in Gotham, and "Knock, Knock" doesn't offer many reasons to be optimistic.
Case in point: The events that lead to Essen's untimely and aggressively wrongheaded murder by Jerome "Joker" Valeska. Jerome seems to exist in Gotham just to flatter viewers who know Heath Ledger's Joker and want more of the same. Cameron Monaghan (Shameless) apes Ledger's breathless rasp whenever Jerome loses his patience, but many of his facial tics seem to borrow heavily from Brian Bolland's version of the character. Episode writer Ken Woodruff also seems to have been inspired by the Bolland-illustrated The Killing Joke, as we see in Jerome's unconvincing "absurd machine" tirade: "What you call sanity is just a prison in your mind that stops you from seeing that you're tiny little cogs in a giant, absurd machine. Wake up! Why be a cog? Be free!"
The fact that Monaghan's version of Joker seems to be taken piecemeal from various other iterations of the character wouldn't be so bad if it didn't indicate that the show's creators are trying and failing to give viewers what they want. Who out there was convinced by Essen's last words? Her breathless good-bye to Gordon — "It's a new day, Jim," ka-thud — felt like a slap in the face to viewers who were hoping that change had finally come to the show, and confirmed Essen's token status as an empowered African-American heroine. Or what about when Essen arbitrarily protests that Bullock "was born to be a cop" and does nothing to acknowledge that Bullock was corrupt, drunk, and lazy throughout last season? Or maybe you bought the bit where Scotty, Bullock's fiancé, tries to shoo Gordon away by telling him that Bullock "has a life"? That "life" was only hinted at last week and in tonight's episode. Bullock's "life" ends as quickly as Essen's terms as GCPD Commissioner, and Alfred's dismissal from Wayne Manor.
If villains are rising on Gotham, then the biggest and most pernicious one is lazy writing. Much of the tonight's drama felt like a flurry of contrivances and bad mugging in the service of a jarring new status quo. Take, for example, Galavan's speech about "human nature." This rant feels like a placeholder that somehow made it into the episode. Galavan generalizes about "human nature" to the point where he doesn't say anything insightful except, "When human beings are terrorized and then presented with a choice between death and exile, they will often choose whatever option isn't death!" This speech wouldn't be so aggravating if Woodruff didn't set himself up for failure. No such speech was necessary, but he provides one anyway, just like how he needlessly makes Essen ask Jerome why he's chosen to go on a rampage and he glibly replies, "To take over the world, blah blah blah. But we'll settle for some dead cops and good PR." We already know about the PR angels, thanks to Galavan's earlier talk with the Maniax. But when Jerome says "blah, blah, blah," he's not just revealing his own listlessness but Woodruff's lack of imagination. Again, it's a placeholder line. There should be a joke, or a witticism, or some character-driven quirk that memorably sells viewers on this line. But there isn't.
Consistency isn't Woodruff's strong suit, as we see when Alfred inexplicably allows Bruce to visit Gordon at police headquarters. Remember: This is right after Alfred gives Bruce a speech about how he destroyed Thomas's computer because he's "trying to protect" Bruce. So secret files are one thing, but visiting the scene of a murder spree ... is not? Trying to figure out the logic behind that decision only leads to a migraine. And don't get me started on why Gordon doesn't call for backup when Barbara shows up, given that he is in a police station full of cops. We get it, Gordon's a white knight and therefore thinks he has it under control. But really, Gordon is such a hothead that he doesn't think to get backup in light of the earlier cheerleader school-bus incident? A bunch of stuff happens tonight on Gotham, but none of it makes sense.
- Whatever happened to Harvey Dent?
- Poor Richard Kind. I just hope Carol Kane doesn't go anywhere!
- Jerome's complaining about "how many people [Robert Greenwood] can eat before his shtick gets old" is ironic since Jerome's character is defined by received mannerisms that have become shtick by the time he got to them.
- One bright spot: Morena Baccarin and Ben McKenzie's exchange of smiles after Thompkins digs slugs out of Arnold Dobkins.
- Speaking of Dobkins: Typical that they killed him first, since he's the best Maniac!